PURIFIED BY FIRE

Last rites

Burning ideas

PURIFIED BY FIRE: A HISTORY OF CREMATION IN AMERICA. By Stephen Prothero.
University of California Press; 280 pages; $27.50 and £18.50


SUPPOSING you are on the brink of death and, being a dutiful human being, have sought to put your worldly affairs in order, paying off your credit cards and so on. A lingering concern occupies your last thoughts. Should you proceed to the next world in some style, your cortège dignified by, say, six white horses? Or would it be more responsible to depart the modern way, at least saving your dearest some money, by leaving instructions for your body to be burnt?

In Britain, it seems, most people have long made up their mind in favour of cremation. About 70% of bodies are burnt. In the United States, though, the proportion is only some 25%. Stephen Prothero appears to have discovered a rare area of technological progress in which the Americans are lagging behind.

The cremationists have had a hard task persuading Americans that theirs is the proper, hygienic and indeed American way of disposing of the body. It is argued that the loved one’s relations are spared trips to the graveyard on a cold damp day. What could be nicer than keeping your husband’s ashes in a tasteful box on the mantelpiece? Or consider a fear—primitive and foolish, no doubt, yet still persistent—that haunts those who opt for the grave: being mistakenly buried alive as the result of a doctor’s blunder, waking up six feet under and desperate to get out. Better by far a quick end through cremation.

But in the profitable industry of the disposal of the dead, the traditionalists have fought in America to keep their market share. To impress the dying, early crematoriums—given the name of “columbariums” for a place to store ashes—were built with the grandeur of cathedrals. In response, the traditionalists have replaced drab urban burial grounds with pleasant lawn parks. Lobbyists for the burial industry have persuaded the American government not to take sides, unlike in places short of land, such as Japan and European countries, where governments have encouraged the spread of crematoriums.

Sadly, the cremationists who were anxious to show the social advantages of their mission have sometimes overdone things. One American doctor pointed out that the ashes of the dead make excellent fertiliser. Ever the utilitarian, the same man suggested that the dead could make themselves especially useful by having their skins removed before incineration and turned into leather.

The public was not enthusiastic. The story of cremation in America, Mr Prothero notes, is one of only moderate success. But the cremationists have never stopped trying, even if some of their efforts verge on the fantastic. In 1997 the cremated remains of 24 people, among them Gene Roddenberry, the creator of “Star Trek”, were rocketed into orbit. Their fond relations could have the solace of knowing that they were passing heavenwards every 90 minutes. Forget white horses. For the corpse who has everything, this was the only way to go.
http://www.economist.com/books/displ...tory_ID=526297